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Cathode Ray Mission: THE VACANT LOT (1993-94)

CanTV expert Cameron Archer navigates the often inhospitable landscape of Canadian television for the CATHODE RAY MISSION, our regular blog column that highlights some of Canadian television’s most offbeat offerings.

Debutting in 1993 and lasting a full six episodes, CBC’s sketch comedy showcase THE VACANT LOT (CBC, 1993-94; Comedy Central, 1994) was one of a handful of attempts by the natinoal network to exploit the success of their flagship show, THE KIDS IN THE HALL (CBC, 1988-94; CBS/HBO, 1988-95). THE VACANT LOT featured Mark McKinney’s brother, Nick McKinney and it was executive produced by Jim Biederman, who  fulfilled the same role for THE KIDS IN THE HALL.

THE VACANT LOT‘s most appealing feature was the full support of Lorne Michaels’ production company, Broadway Video. Michaels needs no introduction — SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE (NBC, 1975- ) and THE KIDS IN THE HALL are his two most enduring cultural signposts. THE VACANT LOT was in a unique position to become the next big Canadian comedy export. Unfortunately, that never happened.

The Basic Formula

The show basically cribs THE KIDS IN THE HALL‘s formula. It’s a Broadway Video show, so it’s slick, looks good, and is America-ready. Troupe members Vito Viscomi, Rob Gfroerer, Nick McKinney and Paul Greenberg are set to be household names, on par with Dave Foley, Mark McKinney, Scott Thompson, Kevin McDonald and Bruce McCulloch.

The Weird Bits

THE KIDS IN THE HALL starts with Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet’s “Having an Average Weekend,” and scnes of  the Kids having fun. It doesn’t let viewers in on the show’s potentially offensive material right away. By comparison, The Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant” serves as THE VACANT LOT‘s theme song. An allusion to the Maxell “Blown Away Guy” commercial lets the audience know what The Vacant Lot are about, from the off.

THE VACANT LOT is less straightforward, and more absurd, than THE KIDS IN THE HALL. But THE VACANT LOT also looks unfinished and spotty, as the castmembers feel the television medium out. Broadway Video’s series often look like that by design, but THE VACANT LOT is messy even by BV standards.

Let’s Watch

The first part of episode 5 (or episode 1, in the Comedy Central run.)


 
Part of episode 6 (episode 3, on Comedy Central.) This clip features “(This Song’s Gonna Make A) Great Video,” which breaks down the essentials of a music video — stupidity, pigeons, chicks, midgets, torches, and smoke.

 

Cultural Legacy

THE VACANT LOT was something of an odd duck by 1993, as CBC abruptly movied away from edgier comedy productions, a change that had already caused the demise of the similarly short-lived THREE DEAD TROLLS IN A BAGGIE (CBC, 1992). Instead, it was ROYAL CANADIAN AIR FARCE (CBC, 1981, 1993-2009) that charted CBC’s overall comedy direction for most of the 1990s. Even THIS HOUR HAS 22 MINUTES (CBC, 1993- ), though still satirical in its early years, was the latest brainchild from members of the CODCO comedy troupe. COMICS! (CBC, 1993-99) was only as edgy as the acts the show booked.

CBC initially approved a second season of THE VACANT LOT, and thirteen more episodes were scripted, but eventually reneged on its order. Comedy Central spurned THE VACANT LOT to focus on an HBO Downtown Productions property, the similarly ill-fated EXIT 57 (Comedy Central, 1995-96.)

Current Whereabouts

All the troupe members are still quite active. Vito Viscomi currently writes for children’s cartoons, including KID VS. KAT (YTV/Disney XD, 2008-09, 2010-11), THE LEAGUE OF SUPER EVIL (YTV/Cartoon Network, 2009- ), and ROLLBOTS (YTV/The CW4Kids, 2009-10.) He also co-produced the first season of BLUE COLLAR TV (The WB, 2004-06.)

For Rob Gfroerer, THE VACANT LOT is one of two career highpoints. He played Lenny Torquemada in CONSPIRACY GUY: BEHIND THE COAT (SPACE, 2001.) His IMDb page suggests he is typecast as a nerd.

Paul Greenberg’s current specialty is awards shows. The material he wrote for THE 63RD ANNUAL TONY AWARDS (CBS, 2009) earned him an Emmy Award. As an actor, Greenberg guests as D.A. Scott Greenberg on RENO 911! (Comedy Central, 2003-09), and he even has a credit for KUNG FU DINO POSSE (CITV, 2010- ). *cough*

Nick McKinney is currently an executive producer. Recent credits include THE AL FRANKEN SHOW (Sundance Channel, 2004-05), THE IFC MEDIA PROJECT (IFC, 2008-10), the first six episodes of 30 DAYS (FX, 2005-06, 2008), and a few episodes of WIFE SWAP (ABC, 2004-10; 2012- as CELEBRITY WIFE SWAP.) McKinney cut his political teeth as a writer/producer on Michael Moore-fronted newsmagazine THE AWFUL TRUTH (Channel 4, 1999-2000).

Summary

The Vacant Lot, as a Toronto comedy troupe, had the fan following to warrant a television show. Sadly, I learned what a burial means in television, after watching THE VACANT LOT in first run (I was twelve at the time). ROYAL CANADIAN AIR FARCE and THIS HOUR HAS 22 MINUTES’ success, coupled with THE KIDS IN THE HALL winding down its run, meant there was no room for THE VACANT LOT.

CBC’s dalliances with alternative sketch comedy ended with THE VACANT LOT. A later sketch comedy anthology series, SKETCHCOM (1998-99), went nowhere. Other 1993 sketch comedy debuts still exist on CBC Television – AIR FARCE currently rates a year-end special, while 22 MINUTES celebrates its twentieth season in 2012-13.

THE VACANT LOT‘s televised legacy boils down to this “Blinded by the Light” sketch. To CBC Television, renewing a show like AIR FARCE was a cakewalk – it earned good ratings, had a prior twenty-year history on CBC Radio, and was relatively cheap to produce. By comparison, THE VACANT LOT was relatively expensive, and unsure of itself.

A December 1993 debut suggests CBC wanted to wash its hands of THE VACANT LOT. I still don’t understand CBC’s strategy in debuting a show that late. Sure, thirteen more episodes were planned, but THE VACANT LOT was almost set up to fail. Alternative sketch comedy hasn’t been seen on CBC since THE VACANT LOT, and Canada is poorer for it.

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